As the old saying goes, it’s lonely at the top.
A string of recent studies show that high-performing employees are vulnerable to attacks from coworkers. In settings ranging from Taiwanese hair salons to American business schools, average performers treated their more successful peers as adversaries, and found opportunities to disparage and undermine them.
If you’re a top performer yourself, these findings may have you looking over your shoulder. But there’s a key caveat: The effect is particular to situations in which the top performer’s success makes everyone else feel like a failure. So here are a few techniques that can help you minimize unnecessary rivalry—and enjoy the fruits of your achievements.
Before signing onto a new team, ask about how it measures and awards performance. For example, Gawker Media’s New York office featured prominent screens that displayed updated information about the top stories of the day, and the top-performing writers over the course of a month. Microsoft and General Electric famously used a “stack ranking” review system that required managers to compare employees to each other and rank them, firing a certain percentage of the worst performers. (Both companies have since abandoned the practice.) Such systems make employees more likely to vie against each other instead of directing their energy toward outside competitors.
During the hiring process, try to suss out whether the company culture promotes heroes and zeros. Ideally, you want an environment where the whole team feels invested in one another’s success, rather than one in which there are clear winners and losers. Although it might be tempting to join a team where you can be the big fish, it’s not worth if your achievements create a backlash.
Once you’re a part of a team, you can minimize the risk of vindictive behavior from your co-workers by showing that your success is good for everyone. Be generous with your knowledge, and share the effective techniques you use so that your teammates can benefit from them. Resist the urge to hoard knowledge or power.
That said, don’t hold yourself out as the uber-guru. Instead, sprinkle comments about what works for you when the time is right—say, during a brainstorming session or when other people ask for advice.
Another part of sharing the love is to dole out credit liberally. Most people aren’t exclusively responsible for their own success. If there’s someone who made a meaningful contribution to a hit new marketing strategy or boosting ice-cream sales, acknowledge it both privately and publicly.
It’s much more tempting to try to take down the over-confident jerk than to sabotage someone who seems to work hard for their success. You can do and say things to put yourself in the latter camp. For example, when you talk about your achievements, frame them in terms of behavior and action (“I followed up with the prospect seven times before I got a meeting”) rather than congratulating yourself for a quality inherent to your personality (“I am very persistent”). Talking about what you did rather than who you are makes your teammates more likely to see you as deserving of success. It also has the added benefit of making success feel within reach for everyone.
Another advantage of privately acknowledging your teammates’ contributions to your success is that it will help you build strong one-on-one relationships. It’s important for your coworkers to know you as more than “that woman who beats me for the President’s Club every year.” Take the time to ask about other people’s jobs and lives, and share some stories of your own.
Another especially effective way to strengthen your relationships is to ask genuinely for help where you need it. Demonstrating that you aren’t superhuman and that you do have struggles will humanize you. (For example, if there’s someone in another department you’re having difficulty influencing, you can ask a long-tenured co-worker for suggestions.) But only do this if you legitimately have a question, lest you come off as making a false overture.
Managers can be ambivalent about top performers. On one hand, your manager knows that your success reflects well on him and bolsters the results of the whole team. On the other hand, he might feel threatened by the attention you get, and even worried that you’re after his job. It’s critical to keep your boss as an ally. So share credit, ask for help so your boss feels that he’s adding value, and build your personal relationship. In the case of your boss, you also need communicate a lot. Bosses don’t like surprises—even good ones. Talk with your boss frequently to let him know what you’re working on and make him feel connected and relevant.
If company leaders want to retain top performers, they need to create environments where high achievers feel appreciated—yet avoid putting a target on their backs. To that end, make sure that public rewards and celebrations don’t put top performers on a pedestal so high that it will foster resentment. Instead, use public forums to celebrate a variety of definitions of high performance—including greatest improvement, or even demonstrations of company values. And if you’re stumped for private ways to let a top performer know how much you value them, a raise certainly never hurts.